By Mike Lednovich
The deadline to have the Port of Fernandina’s tugboat Fort Clinch certified by the U.S. Coast Guard passed on Aug. 31, and since then ships arriving and leaving the port have been paying triple for tugboat services out of Jacksonville.
Ocean Highway and Port Authority Commissioner Ray Nelson said Savage, which runs the port, has been in a contract dispute with a Jacksonville shipyard to have the Fort Clinch hauled out and inspected. Nelson said the dispute is over three words in the contract.
Nelson has been sounding the alarm with the OHPA commission over the mandated U.S. Coast Guard inspection since last April.
“The point I want to make to this board tonight is that we are jeopardizing customers,” Nelson said Monday at a special OHPA meeting to approve its budget. “Because the tugboat is out of service and cannot be used to do what it is supposed to be doing, which is pulling ships into the docks and pulling ships out of the docks. We’re having to go into Jacksonville and having to mobilize tugboats out of Jacksonville.”
Brian Seuter, a harbor pilot for 22 years at the Port of Fernandina, detailed the added expenses ship owners are paying.
“You’re talking between $18,000 to $20,000 per use for tugboats from Jacksonville as opposed to $7,000 or $8,000 for the Fort Clinch,” Seuter said. “I”m hoping someone is making these (port) customers whole for that (added expense). I hope someone could relay to Savage that customer relations have been harmed. When people come to Fernandina they’re looking for a certain level of care and attention and customer service. When people are looking at their costs and they see this additional $10,000 to $15,000 cost each way, that adds up quickly.”
Seuter said OHPA needs to pressure Savage to resolve its issues and have the tugboat returned to service as quickly as possible.
According to Nelson, estimates for the inspection are between $75,000 to $100,000. A “haul out” inspection means the tugboat will be placed in a dry dock facility and the vessel’s hull integrity reviewed by a certified Coast Guard inspector.
The port had the tugboat hauled out for work at dry dock at a shipyard in Palatka to have its hull repainted last April. But the U.S. Coast Guard was never notified during the haul out to have the tugboat also inspected and certified.
Matt McPhail with Savage said, “We are aware of the tugboat issue. We are aware of the additional costs (to ships) that we are trying to avoid as best we can. We’re working with customers on a case by case basis to alleviate some of those costs.”
McPhail said many times depending on a ship’s size, a second tugboat from Jacksonville is required.
“The operations team is talking to pilots about the need for that second tugboat,” McPhail said. “Again we’re aware of it and I can’t speak to the three words in the contract, we are aware of the added costs and working diligently to get it resolved.”
The OHPA commission instructed its attorney to send a letter to Savage pressing them to get the tugboat back in service as quickly as possible.